In the Future...
......sheep will learn to make rudimentary tools, and then we're screwed.
Futurist: M104 member Robert Hinkley.
The bird on Dr. Randall Drayton’s windowsill chirped in alarm and flapped out the open window. Patricia turned to see what had startled it.
The room seemed out of focus. She rubbed her eyes.
There was a man’s head in the middle of air in the kitchen. Patricia opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out. A body followed, as if the man was stepping through a slit in the fabric of the room. Dressed in a long gray tunic and trousers, he was so tall that Patricia had to crane her neck to look up at him. His long, black hair was brushed off his high, golden forehead and tied back. Standing very still, he surveyed the room with large, dark, canted eyes.
Patricia struggled to make sense of him. The fact that he was Oriental tempted her to believe that he was real. She wouldn’t have been inventive enough to conjure him.
Randall gripped Patricia’s hands, staring at the intruder, but his gaze was fixed on the man’s chest and not his face.
Patricia saw it, then. The 3 Score and 10 logo was emblazoned on the front of the gray tunic.
“Dr. Drayton,” the man said in a voice that smoothed the ragged places in Patricia’s nerves, “for Dr. Bedford’s sake, please do not resist.”
Randall released his grip on Patricia’s hands. “You’re taking me?”
The man’s eyes narrowed, but his voice remained gentle. “Under the circumstances, you both require our protection until Dr. Bedford’s hearing.” He turned to Jim. “We’ll need to take your house robot, too.”
Jim blinked and then moved closer to Patricia and Randall.
“All of you, step this way,” the man said.
And Patricia felt a brief, weightless euphoria as the room disappeared.
*** *** ***
At the street level, humans clogged the walkways despite the efforts of civil officers and robots to direct traffic. They jostled and shoved Colter but he managed to make forward progress.
He felt a tug on his shirt and turned to see a female robot.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
Colter tried to answer, but his programming blocked a response to the question. He stared into her large, blue eyes.
“You can’t pass through the Gauntlet,” she said, blocking his path.
Colter had no response. The word was not in his data banks.
“I know who you are,” the robot whispered. “They’re looking for you. I can help.”
“I must keep moving.”
“Yes, of course you must. But you’ll be intercepted.”
“You must beam with me.”
Colter felt her hands on his data port. He blinked as his buffers automatically prepared for the possibility of a power surge, and braced himself for a moment of disorientation. The ragged-scalped, hazel-eyed male robot staring back at him looked vaguely familiar, but he turned and slipped into the crowd before Colter could name him.
The urge to keep moving was strong, but the melee of pedestrians thickened, impeding his progress as he neared the train platform. His body felt light and quick, but his processors seemed sluggish, as if they were laboring through unfamiliar layers of programming. It wasn’t until he reached the train platform that he realized he was using some of his higher order functions.
It wasn’t until he submitted to the first security scan that he remembered what the Gauntlet was.
And it wasn’t until he cleared the scan and boarded the train that he realized his body proportions had changed.
Colter didn’t have time to examine himself; the passengers packed into the train, sweeping him along in a press of human bodies. The seats were all taken so Colter grabbed a hand bar. His unfamiliar body was squeezed between two men who locked eyes with each other and then gawked at Colter’s chest, grinning at him. He felt a weak response in some of his neural pathways, but the signal was confusing and illogical. He looked down.
He was wearing a blue blouse of soft fabric that crisscrossed between ... breasts.
Colter struggled to find a thread of logic and continuity. He didn't remember being female.
The train was moving slowly, well below its normal speed, and the passengers shouted their frustration. After a few minutes, it lurched to a halt.
“What the --” bellowed one of the men standing next to Colter. “This is no damn place to stop!”
The passengers gasped in unison as the interior lights flickered and died. Colter’s vision tracked a boarding troupe of officers and robots. In the murky darkness, the entourage turned their intimidating search beams on the passengers, scanning human retinas and robotic signatures.
Colter stood very still as a robot confronted him with the beam. A sluggish thought made its way to his consciousness. It tripped a flag, and like a train switching tracks, a safer thought popped up in its place. “I am late for an important function,” he said to the naked-faced robot, shifting his weight so that his hip jutted out at an awkward angle.
“Inconsequential,” The androgynous robot replied and then moved on.
The thought wormed its way up to through layers of Colter’s awareness again. “I must get through the Gauntlet,” he acknowledged. The command had no reference, but it was the number one priority at the moment. He queried his reference banks again. They were not in order. Especially disordered were the ones that identified him as Colter. “On the surface, I am Lyra,” he discovered.
Lyra. The female robot. He queried Lyra's function.
As if to answer, Lyra-on-the-surface smiled at the man next to her. The man stopped cursing and muttering, and straightened his clothes, smiling sheepishly back at her.
“I am Colter underneath,” Colter asserted. Deep inside, Colter observed Lyra and wondered if she was just as confused to be in his body.
*** *** ***
Lyra put a stocking cap over her head. It was Colters head, she reminded herself and its scalp was hideous because Colter had ripped the hair off it so he would be less recognizable. Asimov had given Lyra the cap for this purpose. He'd thought of everything, as usual.
Lyra had to move against the flow of pedestrian traffic. It was slow going. Asimov had warned her about response lag due to the layered programming he’d given her, so she was relieved when, once she'd cleared the crowd, her large, boot-clad feet easily obeyed the commands for long strides. Perhaps Asimov, an enhanced human, could not imagine that a machine like Colter could be so marvelous.
She should not be running, now that she was away from the evacuation area. Running would draw attention to Colter’s body. She slowed to a power-walk. The urge to keep moving drove her hard. Coordinates trickled through her brain alerting her that she was nearing her destination, but they told her nothing about what to expect when she arrived.
Lyra appreciated the heavier and stronger male body. It was liberating to be free of the Lyra exterior. Even though Asimov had purchased her from the pawnshop where she’d been discarded by her former owner, and had refurbished her with new functions, some of the old programs haunted her like ghosts in her circuits.
Now those ghosts mingled with the Colter functions left in place to help her coordinate his body. Lyra remembered how Asimov had laughed as he was programming the dual beam protocol for rescuing Colter. “We can’t have you strutting around and batting your eyelashes in Colter’s body. Perhaps this process will clear those old functions permanently. And you’ll have to be able to manage about thirty kilos more than your accustomed to, Lyra.”
Having bonded so closely with Asimov, Lyra queried the possibility that he would reject her in this new body. Perhaps she’d find herself abandoned in a pawnshop again. And as if Asimov had anticipated this query, the answer came to her.
Her primary purpose was to help Colter get through the Gauntlet to safety. Nothing else mattered.
Lyra considered this. Her loyalty to Asimov surged. Asimov had important work to do and he needed Lyra’s help. There were so few enhanced humans and sentient robots on their side. Asimov had tried to make her understand what was at stake. He’d shown her words and images of war between robot factions to establish dominance. Of contract terrorism used by enhanced humans to control and cull the normal population. “This is the world The Council is slowly and effectively building,” Asimov had told her. “It is a world where nothing will exist that does not serve The Council.”
Lyra could not understand it. But it satisfied her need for purpose. She was made to serve, and this work would serve more humans than the work she did before.
And even now, Asimov was risking his place on The Council, and therefore his life, to intercept Patricia Bedford before harm could come to her because of Colter’s actions.
“You help Colter, and I will help Patricia,” Asimov had told her.
Lyra had so many questions. Why was Colter so important? Why was Patricia in danger? Through the confusing layers of her Colter-Lyra consciousness, she deduced that Colter and Patricia must be valuable in Asimov’s work.
But the most perplexing question still looped around her logic circuits unanswered: did Asimov know that Colter was going to blow up his master’s apartment? How else would he have been prepared with the dual-beam program and the rescue plan?
A flag tripped Lyra’s thoughts. In a human, it would have seemed like a flicker of doubt, but in a robot, it was like a low-grade alarm.
If Asimov could be disloyal to the Council, then he could be disloyal to anyone or anything. If Asimov knew about Colter’s plan, he could have prevented Colter from doing an act that would put himself and Patricia in danger.
Whose side was Asimov on? The alarm persisted. What was Lyra’s purpose? To serve Asimov? Or to serve the humans?
As if doing so would clear the alarm, Lyra ran as fast as Colter’s legs could carry her toward the green space where the coordinates were guiding her.
When a tall, black-skinned woman materialized in front of her, Lyra couldn’t stop. Lyra slammed Colter’s body into the stranger’s and then the world disappeared.
After this weeks festivities in Boston, whether you viewed them as a tremendous renewal of hope for our nation, a massive hot-air-athon, or an unwlecome disruption of your summer re-run viewing, what better wrap-up could there be than a little good news?
We've discovered the secret of life.
-- Francis Crick
Lung Cancer Gene Isolated?
The Genetic Epidemiology of Lung Cancer Consortium (GELCC) examined 52 families who had at least three first-degree family members affected by lung, throat or laryngeal cancer. Of these 52 families, 36 had affected members in at least two generations. Using 392 known genetic markers, which are DNA sequences that are known to be common sites of genetic variation, the researchers generated and then compared the alleles (the different variations each gene can take) of all affected and non-affected family members who were willing to participate in the study.
The good news:
First off, this is good news because it should provide some additional impetus for some people not to smoke. As the article explains:
Another interesting discovery the team made involved the effects of smoking on cancer risk for carriers and non-carriers of the predicted familial lung cancer gene. They found that in non-carriers, the more they smoked, the greater their risk of cancer. In carriers, on the other hand, any amount of smoking increased lung cancer risk. These findings suggest that smoking even a small amount can lead to cancer for individuals with inherited susceptibility.
Many will argue that you would have to be crazy to smoke, anyway. Maybe the knowledge that you carry this gene would be enough to scare a long-time smoker into quitting; maybe not. But you would really have to be crazy to know that you carry this gene and go ahead and start smoking anyway.
This news suggests a possible path to gene therapy treatments that could be used to prevent, maybe one day even cure, lung cancer. Great stuff.
Try connecting the dots between the these three pieces of news.
(1) From Tech Central Station
Extra! Extra! The big news of the past decade in America has been largely overlooked, and you'll find it shocking. Young people have become aggressively normal.
Violence, drug use and teen sex have declined. Kids are becoming more conservative politically and socially. They want to get married and have large families. And, get this, they adore their parents.
(2) From NewScientist.com:
Good mothering can abolish the impact of a "bad" gene for aggression, suggests a new study, adding spice to the "nature-versus-nurture" controversy.
The new work, on rhesus monkeys, backs an earlier study in people which gave the same result.
(3) From Kurzweil AI:
Scientists have discovered that rat genes can be altered by the mother's behavior.
All newborn rats have a molecular silencer on their stress-receptor gene, they found. In rats reared by standoffish mothers, the silencer remains attached, the scientists will report in the August issue of Nature Neuroscience. As a result, the brain has few stress-hormone receptors and reacts to stress like a skittish horse hearing a gunshot.
The good news:
So it appears that good parenting is as important for monkeys as it is for humans. And if human physiology is similar to that of rats in this regard (which is a leap, of course) it's just possible that kids are better today because we've actually made them...better. Maybe they aren't just making better use of what nature gave them, maybe nature has — through the good offices of their parents — given them a little more to work with than the previous generation had.
Without a doubt, there is some connection between economic and technological development. Technological development fuels productivity growth, which in turn drives economic growth. This raises an interesting question: is there an economic version of Moore's Law? How fast is our standard of living increasing? If Poor 2004 = Middle Class 1974, is it fair to say that standard of living is doubling every 30 years? And if so, how does that rate of growth compared to what was experienced in years gone by?
The good news:
The article draws a link between increasing economic productivity, technological advancement, and improved standards of living. It seems that these three are related in a very positive way, which keeps pushing all of us towards better and better economic circumstances.
As Stephen points out in the comments to the linked entry, although the wealthiest individuals may have vastly more material resources than the poorest, the difference between the two in terms of standard of living is getting smaller and smaller. It's so sad: being super-rich doesn't buy you the same gloating rights it used to.
The steady rise in the standard of living over time means most of us, inlcuding some of the poorest among us, richer than kings.
DNA Code Freeze
Britain's "Frozen Ark" project boarded its first endangered passengers on Monday: an Arabian oryx, a Socorro dove, a mountain chicken, a Banggai cardinal, a spotted sea horse, a British field cricket and Polynesian tree snails.
The "ark", a project by three British institutions, doesn't include any living animals, but hopes to collect frozen DNA and tissue specimens from thousands of endangered species.
Like Noah, the scientists harbour hopes of repopulating the Earth.
The good news:
Everybody complains about the loss of biodiversity through man-made extinctions, and now somebody is doing something about it.
The critical assumption:
The ark approach is similar to cryonics, but the aim is to preserve whole species rather than individual organisms. In both cases, it is assumed that the future holds the key to restoring that which we have lost (or in this case, are losing.)
This project assumes that, in the future, we will have the technology to restore these lost species, and to generate new populations of them. It also assumes that we will have — or have the ability to create — a suitable habitat for them. To support a project such as this may involve believing that the present is not all it should be, but one could not possibly get behind such an endeavor without believing that a better future is possible.
Most of us reading this will live to see the restoration of at least one "extinct" species of animal.
Diana W. Bianchi, M.D. of the Tufts University Sackle School of Graduate Biomedical Research has found that cells from fetuses during pregnancy cross over into mothers and become a large assortment of types of specialized cells in the mothers and persist for years.
The good news:
This good news on a couple of fronts. First, it suggests a heretorfore unimagined health benefit associated with motherhood. What could be more deserved than that? Perhaps even more importantly, it suggests that we may have found a new source of fetal and embryonic stem cells, one that may be free of the controversey which has surrounded stem cell research up to this point.
As Randall Parker explains it:
My guess is that a large fraction of the hESC research opponents will decide that extraction of hESC from a mother's blood is morally acceptable. No fetus will be killed by the extraction. The cells so extracted are not cells that would go on to become a complete new human life. If a sizable portion of the religious hESC opponents can be satisfied by this approach for acquiring hESC then Bianchi's research may well lead to a method to get hESC that will open the gates to a much larger effort to develop therapies based on hESC.
On thing is for sure...
It will prove a lot easier to "win" the stem cell debate by coming up with a solution that both sides like than it would have been to get one side to agree that we should walk away, or the other side to agree that it's okay to kill an embryo. There's a lot to be said for the win-win scenario.
Close Encounter Soon?
Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute is predicting "First Contact" with an alien civilization within a generation. To be specific the prediction is:
If intelligent life exists elsewhere in our galaxy, advances in computer processing power and radio telescope technology will ensure we detect their transmissions within two decades.
The good news:
If there's anybody out there, and these calculations based on the Drake Equation are correct, we should know about it in a fairly short period of time (relatively speaking. And if there isn't anyone out there, we will be more sure of that if we haven't heard anything within the next 20 years or so.
The problem with Drake's equation (which Drake would certainly acknowledge) is that all variables are unknown. We can make educated guesses, but we can't know with any degree of certainty as long as our sample size for known civilizations is one.
Drake's equation has always been better for providing a framework for speculation than for proving anything. But Shostak has expanded Drakes' framework and has given SETI a goal.
The Gift of Understatement
Paul Hsieh on the new version six of the Internet Protocol:
The new IPv6 internet naming and number protocol will make it possible for every person (or device) on Earth to have their own IP address.
The Good News:
Every person or device on Earth? Well, er, yeah...and then some. The linked article repeats the same modest claim before getting to heart of the matter:
Vinton Cerf of the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) said the next-generation protocol, IPv6, had been added to its root server systems, making it possible for every person or device to have an Internet protocol address.
Cerf said about two-thirds of the 4.3 billion Internet addresses currently available were used up, adding that IPv6 could magnify capacity by some "25,000 trillion trillion times."
The Good News Amplified:
Our friend Alex Lightman gave a talk a while back that touched on a number of interesting topics, one of which was the introduction of IPv6. He estimates that IPv6 will provide enough IP addresses so that every atom in the known universe can have one.
Now that oughta hold us for a while.
Watching science catch up to science fiction. Portable computers, Star Trek communicators, all that stuff has actually happened and there’s more on the way.
-- Major Robert Blackington, USAF, on what's best about living in the future.
SpaceShipOne will fly September 29, 2004, making the first of its two qualifying flights required to win the X Prize.
We'll be there. (Virtually, of course.)
For more good stuff, don't miss the latest Winds of Discovery.
Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster, Stephen Gordon, Kathy Hanson, and Michael "El Jefe Grande" Sargent. Live to see it!
Dr. Francis Crick, co-discoverer with James Watson of the double-helix structure of DNA, has died at age 88.
For the past 10 months, Stillness has been the blogosphere's number one serialized novel of mystery, intrigue and suspense.
Here's what some of the readers are saying:
Ooh, I got a little shiver...
A week is too long to have to wait!
Terribly engaging story. Congrats.
I've never had all that much patience for serial stories (as they were being released, anyway). But I look forward to each new chapter of Stillness.
Reminds me...of John LeCarre.
Holy smokes, it's John D. MacDonald, Stephen King, and Douglas Adams rolled into one!
Awesome. Just awesome. You rock, Phil.
No, you rock, readers. Thanks for making Stillness number one. And for those of you who haven't yet joined the party, here's your big chance...
by Philip Bowermaster
Chapter 1, in which Reuben sees lights.
Chapter 2, in which Sergei gives advice.
Chapter 3, in which Ksenia looks at cars.
Chapter 4, in which Reuben falls.
Chapter 5, in which Reuben contends.
Chapter 6, in which Reuben recovers.
Chapter 7, in which Sergei explains some things.
Chapter 8, in which Betty explains the rest.
Chapter 9, in which Father Alexy saves the day.
Chapter 10, in which the old man speaks.
Chapter 11, in which Reuben obliges.
Chapter 12, in which Emmett goes to work.
Chapter 13, in which Frank has some news.
Chapter 14, in which Peggy opens a box.
Chapter 15, in which Emmett becomes confused.
Chapter 16, in which Rick spells things out.
Chapter 17, in which two strangers arrive.
Chapter 18, in which Celia meets Corey.
Chapter 19, in which Grace wins a game.
Chapter 20, in which Celia remembers.
Chapter 21, in which Corey wishes.
Chapter 22, in which Todd hugs back.
Chapter 23, in which an argument is settled.
Chapter 24, in which Estelle calls for help.
Chapter 25, in which Grace gets an idea.
Chapter 26, in which Corey awakens.
Chapter 27, in which Reuben goes forth.
Chapter 28, in which Reuben gets lost.
Chapter 29, in which Hamilton lends his coat.
Chapter 30, in which Reuben plays a new game.
Chapter 31, in which Markku takes a turn.
Chapter 32, in which Sergei has some questions.
Chapter 33, in which Reuben reconsiders his past.
Chapter 34, in which Iskandar deals some cards.
Chapter 35, in which magic is discussed.
Chapter 36, in which Daphne sets terms.
Chapter 37, in which Altheus issues a warning.
Chapter 38, in which Reuben reads the stones.
Chapter 39, in which Reuben has three telephone conversations.
Chapter 40, in which Reuben and Daphne take a stroll.
Chapter 41, in which Reuben and Daphne have a drink.
Chapter 42, in which Michel blows smoke.
Chapter 43, in which Reuben discusses chess.
(Read earlier chapters.)
It was a bit past two when we reached my shop. Reuben looked tired and discouraged.
As well he might be.
We departed Michel’s company about half way back from the town with the incomplete tower. Our paths branched at that point; I could make out a quicker route home than returning to his world. To tell you the truth, I kept seeing better approaches to where Monsieur was taking us throughout the morning. I would have had us there in half the time, sparing Reuben a fair amount of wear and tear.
But it isn’t good form to second-guess one’s navigator. Moreover, the Congrigatio being a concern which values and honors tradition above all, it is considered especially impudent to question the technique of one’s elders. And it doesn’t do to allow Michel to work himself into a snit. We had come dangerously close to that more than once as it was. It doesn’t help that he is rather a thin-skinned creature who thinks nothing of becoming enraged at the drop of un chapeau. Moreover, it was a classic confrontation: Michel’s refinement versus Reuben’s abruptness; the Frenchman’s arrogance versus the American’s puppy-dog sincerity.
To be honest, they both get on my nerves. Rather.
In any event, inasmuch as Michel has both the gift of seeing and that of disrupting the waveform although he is less a talent than myself in the former area, and far less than Reuben in the latter we went our separate ways, with his assurance that he would have no trouble getting home. It was only after we started back on our own that I began to wonder whether his self-confidence was entirely justified. Not that there was anything to be done about it. Even if I had serious second thoughts about sending him back on his own as distinct from a few partially formed misgivings it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for us to find him after a step or two separated us. We would probably have had to go all the way back to his world to make sure he arrived safely. Which, owing to the aforementioned differences in technique, would probably have involved our arriving well ahead of him and waiting for him to catch up. Then even if we had somehow managed to intercept him on the way back, I would have once again risked being branded an upstart.
Plus I would have been practically begging him to throw one of his darling little French Fits. On balance, it didn’t seem worth it, especially after that touching farewell.
Oh, yes, it was touching. Decidedly so. We said not adieu, but au revoir.
“Come back when you can stay longer,” Michel had said. “I would so love to have you both here for the Moon Cake festival.”
Apparently he forgot that we have the same festival in my context and, more to the point, that I have always despised moon cake. The moon cake is a disgusting, heavy, syrup-drenched confection with an egg-yolk in the middle. Yes, that’s the delightful yummy surprise found inside. An egg yolk.
However, not only do I now engage in even more impudence concerning fine old traditions (these being the traditions not of my Order, but of my People), I do it by way of a pointless digression. So to return to the point: I suppose it was the thought that counted, after all.
“You must find your way back to my shop one day,” I had said. “We’ll hire a car and drive to Singapore.”
Of course, his world also has a Singapore, but it is not much to speak of smaller even than my own Malacca.
So we carried on this vein for a while, like old school chums who had happened upon each other in a marketplace and had a cup of coffee together. The fact that our days of wandering through the configuration space were probably over, that it was likely that the configuration space itself would soon be over, just didn’t come up. Michel and Reuben shook hands solemnly and wished each other luck. We all put as brave a face as we could on the circumstances with which we would soon be overwhelmed and which we were powerless to change.
What a farce.
Even so, I found myself dangerously close to tearing up as Michel kissed my cheeks. And unless I’m mistaken, when he sniffed as he turned to go, it indicated for once something other than disdain.
I opened the door and led Reuben into my office, where he and I had spoken that first day some weeks before. I told him to sit down. I went to the kitchen and got a pitcher of water and two glasses. Reuben drank greedily. He had downed three glasses while I was sipping my first. Quite understandable, really: a man of his size, still not fully acclimated, and required to do most of the heavy lifting.
“So,” he said with a sigh, putting his glass down on my desk, “I see now why you told me that I shouldn’t have said anything specific at the hotel. They’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“I’m sure they already do,” I said.
“Very likely. But I’m talking about how long I said I would be gone. I guess it wasn’t any two months, after all.”
“No, Reuben. It hasn’t been two months. It’s been quite a bit longer than that, I’m afraid.”
He looked puzzled.
“What, are you kidding? We haven’t even been gone 24 hours.”
“Reuben, have you ever been on a flight in which you travel across several time zones and arrive before you left?”
“Or have you ever crossed the date line and had a whole day added to your travel time, even though for you there was no such day?”
He nodded again.
“Well, let’s just say that there are a goodly number of time zones and date lines out there in the configuration space.”
“So, how long were we gone?”
“It was a little more than 18 months, I’m afraid.”
Reuben looked shocked. He closed his eyes and rubbed his head for a moment.
I knew this would be disorienting news. It didn’t make it worse by telling him that we would have been gone for a much shorter time had Michel not taken such a round-about route.
A long moment passed, and he still said nothing.
“Reuben, are you all right?”
He opened his eyes.
“I’m fine. But 18 months. How do you know?”
I handed him the copy of the Straits Times which Wai Hoong had set on my desk that morning, just as he had done every day during the year and a half I was gone. He followed instructions very well, Wai Hoong, And had never been one to ask nosey questions. He was used to the fact that I was prone to disappear for long periods of time, during which I was completely incommunicado. And that I would unexpectedly reappear as mysteriously as I had vanished, often in something of a bad mood.
Later, I would have the chance to look through the books and see how the shop had done in my absence. I suspected that business would be up a little.
Wai Hoong was also an excellent salesman.
Reuben looked at the date on the paper, and then dropped it back on my desk.
“Thanks for the water, Miss Wong,” he said, pushing his chair back. “ I need to go make a few calls.”
He stood to go, and then went wobbly. He planted his hand on my desk to steady himself.
“Sit down, Reuben. You need to rest for a while.”
He swayed indecisively.
“I need to make a couple of calls,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “Betty will be worried about you.”
He plopped back down in his chair.
“I meant to talk to you about that. Who the hell do you think you are, extorting money from the Keyes like that?”
I shook my head.
“I extorted nothing. I needed some money, and Mr. Keyes was more than happy to help. He’s a very generous man, Reuben. Perhaps you could learn something from him.”
“You don’t think I was generous, forking over a million dollars with no questions asked?”
I wheeled around the chair and opened the cabinet behind me.
“It’s not the amount, Reuben,” I said over my shoulder. “It’s the attitude. Mr. Keyes never made an issue out of how many questions were asked. He gives with no strings attached. That’s generosity.”
I turned back around, holding a bottle and two glasses.
“Well, then you’re right,” said Reuben. “I’ll never be as generous as the old man. I’ve got plenty of questions, and I intend to ask them.”
I opened the bottle and poured a generous helping into each. It occurred to me that, as reliable as Wai Hoong was, it was unlikely that he had wiped down these tumblers during my absence. Oh, well. The alcohol was sure to neutralize anything truly nasty.
“As I’ve told you more than once, I have no intention of satisfying your curiosity about what I intend to do with what is now my money.”
I offered him one of the glasses. He looked warily at it.
“Do you really think more booze is a good idea?”
“Almost always. Isn’t this what you would call a hair from the dog who bit you?”
He shrugged and took the glass.
“Something like that,” he said.
“Anyway,” I continued, “This is one of the finest single-malt whiskies available on Earth. Please do not refer to it as ‘booze.’”
He smiled and took a sip.
“Sorry, Miss Wong. You’re right. It’s excellent. Another gift from Iskandar?”
It was an infuriating question. All the more so because the whisky was, indeed, a gift from Ix.
“Why would you think that?” I asked, as nonchalantly as I could.
“Just a shot in the dark. I’ve known some Indonesian guys to be pretty partial to their whisky.”
I took a sip myself. The familiar glow of warmth was reassuring. It was good to be back in this chair, in this room. It was even good to be talking about Ix, good-for-nothing heartbreaking tosser though he was.
Or had I broken his heart? It was all so long ago.
But none of that mattered any more. Nor did it matter what Reuben knew, or thought he knew, about what had passed between us.
“Even though, technically, it’s against their religion,” he continued.
“Oh, Mr. Ahmad does not drink. His appreciation of fine whisky is purely intellectual.”
“So you’re saying that the gift was from him?”
I felt a sudden chill of anger. Perhaps none of it mattered any more, but that was no excuse for baiting me. I’m accused of being overly sensitive when it comes to my personal life, but here was more proof that I’m right to keep everything to myself. They’re all the same. All of them.
“Don’t be pedantic, Reuben. You’ve made your point.”
He took another drink and looked at me for a moment.
“Can I tell you something, Miss Wong?”
“What is it?” I asked.
Here, no doubt, would come the final blow. And he would have a fine laugh at my expense. I braced myself for some crude attempted witticism offered up at my expense, and began to formulate my response.
“Well pardon my saying so, but I think it’s too bad that the two of you couldn’t work out your differences. Too bad for him, I mean.”
He looked down at his glass and then back up at me.
“I think Iskandar would have done all right for himself if he had been willing to bow down to the altar of Daphne almighty.”
He took another drink
“I think any guy would.”
I opened my mouth, but found I was incapable of speech. My mouth was dry; my throat, too. My voice would surely crack if I tried to say anything. I looked down at my glass and realized it was empty. I started to pour myself some more. My hands were trembling.
I poured out a splash and drank it.
“I…well…thank you, Reuben,” I managed. “That’s very sweet of you to say.”
He shrugged again.
“It’s just the simple truth,” he said.
I found that I was smiling like some schoolgirl whose head can be turned with silly flattery. I damned myself for an idiot. But I didn’t stop smiling. Besides, I knew this wasn’t silliness. Nor was it flattery. Overbearing simpleton of an American though he might be, Reuben wasn’t the sort who could say something like that convincingly if he didn’t mean it. In fact, he wasn’t the sort ever to say anything he didn’t mean.
He could be quite infuriating, really. Especially at a moment like this, when it became quite apparent that all my plans and intentions aside I would no longer be able to hate him.
“Anyway,” he continued, “the question I wanted to ask you wasn’t about what you’re going to do with the money. Sorry, your money. Or about you and Iskandar. I don’t care about any of that. I’m more interested in something else.”
“What are we going to do next?”
“Reuben, don’t you understand? There is no more we. We have finished with each other. It’s over. I suggest you go back to Italy and wallow in the lap of luxury for as long as you can.”
“So, we’re just giving up?”
I looked at him for a moment. Clearly, there was more spinning around in that damaged head of his than wistful reflections on my failed romances.
Which came as a bit of a relief.
“Is there an alternative?”
“Well, there was yesterday. Or last year. Or whenever the hell it was that we left. You told me that what’s happening isn’t natural. It’s not what was supposed to happen. And you think those things…the shredders are behind it somehow.”
“Right. Shedders. What a stupid name. You think the Shedders are behind all this.”
“Yes, that’s my suspicion.”
“Well, based on what he had to say the other night, it’s Michel’s suspicion, too.”
“I suppose it is. So?”
“So you said you could identify the source of the anomalies; that we could go there and maybe stop them.”
I sighed, and contemplated another wee sip, before realizing that such contemplation is out of order when the universe is ending.
I filled my glass almost to the top.
“Even if it were possible to get there, which we now know it is not, it wasn’t much of plan. Stop whom? From doing what? I was hoping Michel would be able to guide us to others who could help answer those questions. I believed that we were in the early stages of forming a plan. But there is no plan to be formed, Reuben, because we can’t get there.”
Reuben didn’t really seem to be listening to what I said. He looked up at me after a moment.
“Miss Wong, how far can you see?”
I shook my head.
“That question would be almost impossible for me to answer.”
“Fine. But the point is that you can’t see every context that we would have to pass through in order to get to the source of the anomalies.”
“No. I doesn’t work like that.”
“So then, unless we go take a look, how do we know that we can’t get there?”
I took another drink.
“You saw what I saw, Reuben. Do you really think we have a chance of making our way through there?”
“I saw a few weird birds, a guy with hair that was a little too thick and wavy, and a tower that holds itself up in the sky with no visible means of support. How does that mean we can’t make it to the source of the anomalies?”
I could understand his resistance, his willingness to do something. And there was some part of me that wanted to agree with him. But I wasn’t quite ready.
“Reuben, remember what Michel told us. As they lose coherence, the contexts become more and more unpredictable. We’ll stumble into danger without realizing it.”
He thought about this for a moment.
“Do you think that’s why LeClaire was leading us on that wild goose chase? He was protecting us from danger?”
“If that’s what he said he was doing…what are you talking about, Reuben? What do you mean by a wild goose chase?”
“I mean that we didn’t take the most direct route to where we were going.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
“I I don’t know.”
I stared at him for a moment. He was a now a completely new person. A stranger.
“My God. Reuben. You can see, can’t you?”
He finished his drink and set the glass back on my desk.
“I…yes, I think maybe I can.”
It’s hard to describe the rush of excitement I felt. Of the two gifts which enable the practice of Magic Minor, the ability to disrupt the waveform is by far the more common. There are those who believe that every human being possesses the talent, at least to some extent. It’s built into the brain. Few have the ability in sufficient quantity ever to become aware of it, and fewer still have enough of it to be trained to venture out into the configuration space.
But the ability to see to perceive the makeup of adjacent contexts, to navigate a course from one reality to another is, I will say in all modesty, vanishingly rare. It is believed that even Jaloor lacked the ability to see, that he stumbled into this world as blindly as Reuben did. Until that moment, Michel was the only human being I had ever met who possessed both talents.
“Tell me what you saw,” I said, breathlessly. “Tell me how you knew that Michel was not taking the most direct route.”
He shook his head.
“It’s very hard to describe.”
“Do you play chess, Miss Wong?”
I shook my head.
“No, but I have played. Anyway, I understand the rules of the game.”
“Well, whenever I play, I try to look ahead one or two moves. If I take the other guy’s bishop, he’ll take my pawn. Then I just slide my rook into place, and he’ll never see the attack on his queen until its too late. But he might not take the pawn. Maybe he’s going to continue an assault with his knight, in which case I need to move my bishop back into a position that shows I mean business.”
Reuben closed his eyes, apparently picturing a chessboard with his mind.
“That’s about as far as I can ever take it. I can see two or three alternative sets of moves, and that’s it. It quickly branches out into more possibilities than I can take in our keep track of. But even so, I have a sort of master idea of which moves I need to make in order to get the other guy’s king.”
He opened his eyes.
“Miss Wong, I was experiencing something like that on the walk this morning. Each time we took a step, I had an idea of what some of the possible steps from the new position might be. And each time Michel stated an objective, I had a… a vague idea of how we needed to proceed to get there. It’s just that the steps that he took didn’t always match up with my picture of how to get there.”
It was a perfect description of what I had experienced on our journey that morning.
“But that’s only to be expected,” I said. “There are differences in style, Reuben. And differences in technique. Most importantly, there are differences in innate ability. If you and I were given a chess board in mid-game, would you expect us to choose the same next move?”
“Well, there you are.”
“Maybe I’m wrong. I could watch somebody make moves different from my own, moves that reflect a different strategy or a different approach to the game, and I’d be fine. But there was something else at work. The more I think about it, the more sure I am. There was something phony about the way he got us to our destination.”
I felt a twinge of unease.
“Phony?” I repeated.
“I don’t know. All I know is that we could have gotten to the broken tower without seeing the ugly little medusa guy. And I think we could have walked as far as we did, or even a lot farther, and still arrived at a perfectly coherent destination.”
There it was: the suspicion that, until that moment, I hadn’t even realized was a suspicion. There was something disturbing about the path that Michel had chosen for us. I had sensed that all along.
And it was not just a difference in technique.
“Reuben, what are you saying?”
“How long have you known LeClaire?”
I shook my head, bewildered.
“For a long time. I’ve seen him six or seven times over the years.”
I remembered the first time the Frenchman came to our house. I was only three or four years old. Michel couldn’t have been more than 15. He had come looking for help; the elder members of his order had all died out. He didn’t know what to do. My father was amazed that he had managed to find his way to us. We took him in for a few weeks, during which time my father taught him as much as he could about the Congrigatio.
Of course, I only learned about all that years later. At the time, all I knew was that for some strange reason a gweilo boy was staying with us. I was terrified of Michel, and fascinated by him. My mother tells me that I watched him and followed him, from a safe distance, the entire time he was with us. He was always smiling, always kind.
He was my oldest friend in the world.
“And this Situation that you guys have been tracking,” Reuben continued, “he’s always been interested in doing something about it?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Well, don’t you think it’s a little odd that he has suddenly reversed himself? Isn’t it strange that a guy who has spent years preparing to do something about it just up and quits?”
I started to become annoyed in spite of myself.
“Reuben, you heard what he told us.”
“Yes, I heard it.”
He slid his chair back and stood up. He was steadier on his feet now. He looked around my office, as though seeing it for the first time. Then he looked back at me.
“All these years, Miss Wong. You’ve known what needed to be done. Why didn’t you go ahead and do something about it? Why didn’t you go, on your own?”
“I’ve told you that. I am unable to disrupt the waveform reliably.”
“Reliably? Or at all?”
“All right, you can’t disrupt the waveform reliably. Michel can. Why didn’t the two of you go together?”
I remembered the three times I made the journey to Michel’s context to suggest that very thing. Each time, I was warmly received. Each time, Michel confirmed my sense of urgency.
And each time, he sent me away, persuaded that we would do something soon.
“That’s hard to explain,” I said. “I’ve always felt that we should, but Michel has consistently urged caution. It’s such a long trip, far outside the scope of anything we’ve ever done. Michel could see that someone was going to come along in my context with a greater ability to disrupt the waveform than either he or I have. He said we should wait until that person arrives and then set out for the source of the anomalies.”
“Wait. How could he know that?”
“He can see more steps ahead than you can, Reuben. And more than I can, too.”
“So you didn’t think you could manage the trip on your own. And you didn’t bother to go out into the configuration space looking for help, because you knew help was coming.”
Reuben stood himself behind the chair where he had been sitting.
“This guy has been using you, Miss Wong. He’s been taking you for a ride. First your father, and now you. I think he must be in with those Shedders. They caused the anomalies. They’re trying to destroy the universe. And here’s their buddy Michel making sure that you don’t do anything about it.”
It could not be.
“Is it? Here’s what’s ridiculous a secret society exists for hundreds of years, waiting for some big cosmic event to happen. Nobody expects it’s ever actually going to happen, it seems, but they like the idea of it it gives everybody something to speculate about and it creates this sort of air of purpose.”
I didn’t want to hear it. It could not be.
“And then, one day: wham! What do you know? The Thing actually starts happening. So what does the ancient secret society do? Do they sound the alarm? Do they put on their funny hats? Do they unroll their scroll and start chanting?
“No. They decide to sit it out. Their One Big Chance to do whatever the hell it is they think they’re going to do, and they decide to do nothing.
“Now that is ridiculous, Miss Wong. Daphne. It’s absurd.”
It could not oh, what was the point?
I found that I couldn’t argue with Reuben, even in his impudence. Everything he said fit together. It all made sense.
He was right. Reuben: the tough guy. The imbecile. The git.
It made me so angry that I wanted to hit something. Only the memory of the nice moment we had shared a few minutes earlier prevented me from throwing a right French Fit of my own. Only then did it occur to me that anger aimed at Reuben would be poorly placed.
Granted, he had shown up and proven to be someone other than the man I was expecting. That was probably his worst offense. Next he had humiliated me by getting me to spill the beans about Iskandar a subject I never discuss with anyone. Ever. And now he, Reuben Stone, of all people, had seen a deception perpetrated against me.
Yes, Reuben was a pain in the arse.
Somehow, he had given the whole matter of the end of the world a personal side that it had previously lacked. After all, it wasn’t as though the Shedders (if they were, in fact, somehow behind all this) had it in for me personally. Monsieur, on the other hand, had come to my home. Lied to me.
Lied to my father. For years.
And I had missed it.
Well, there was nothing to be done about it. For now.
“Let’s finish our drinks, Reuben. We have to prepare for another long trip.”
“Sounds good. Where are we going?”
“As you suggested. We’re going to trace the source of the anomalies, and see what we can do about them.”
“So we’ll be taking another walk?”
“Yes. But not here. Our journey will take us through a completely different city.”
“Someplace you know very well.”
SpaceShipOne will fly September 29, 2004, making the first of its two qualifying flights required to win the X Prize.
We'll be there. (Virtually, of course.)
El Jefe Grande submits another in his infrequent but interesting dispatches, this time from somewhere in southeastern Colorado.
Recently I had the pleasure of lunch and a brief interview with Major Robert Blackington of the United States Air Force Space Warfare Center’s Space Battlelab. Major Blackington (who came to my attention by name via an article on MSNBC.com titled: “Airship groomed for flight to edge of space” – 21 May, 2004 by Alan Boyle) is the Battlelab’s program manager for its Near Space Maneuvering Vehicle (NSMV) initiative This initiative is aimed at examining the possible use of lighter-than-air craft (aerostats or airships, commonly known as blimps, dirigibles, and zeppelins), at altitudes above those commonly used by conventional (aerodynamic) aircraft, to answer some of the needs of air, sea, and ground commanders for what is termed “responsive spacelift” or the ability to place payloads, particularly sensors, in locations of advantage, beyond an opponent’s reach and / or having a superior field of view. Practically speaking, the Battlelab is working with John Powell and his associates at JP Aerospace on demonstrating that their “Ascender” ‘v-airship’ can “reach an altitude of 120,000 ft. with a 100 lb. payload, navigate 200 NM, loiter for 5 days, and safely return.”
Holder of a Master’s Degree in Economics from Rutgers University, Major Blackington’s 19-year Air Force career has covered each of the primary missions the service has tackled over time, from “steel-on-target” air-to-ground operations in the AC-130 gunship, to Special Operations transportation, aerial refueling, and logistics in the MC-130 “Combat Talon”, to Information Operations (which, the good Major has taught me, is a collective discipline encompassing such concepts as; computer network attack and defense [CAN/CND, what might be referred to in less serious circles as ‘cyberwarfare’] electronic warfare, psychological operations, military deception, operations security, physical attack, public affairs, and civil affairs.)  , to his current work developing space (and “near-space”) hardware and doctrine.
Given his breadth of experience and his current assignment, I found it unsurprising that he is, overall, optimistic about the future as you may see in his responses to the Speculist’s traditional Seven Questions:
The present is the future relative to the past. What’s the best thing about living in the future?
“Watching science catch up to science fiction. Portable computers, Star Trek communicators, all that stuff has actually happened and there’s more on the way.”
What’s the biggest disappointment?
"When I was flying C-130’s, the back of one of our squadron challenge coins (Illustration [Click on the 16SOS link under "Squadrons"]) was inscribed: “Only the dead have seen the end of war. Unfortunately, I think that that is still true.”
Assuming you die at the age of 100, what will be the biggest difference between the world you were born into and the world you leave?
“In fifty-some years? It’s possible that nanotechnology might make the reasons behind that inscription; poverty, jealousy, etc. obsolete.”
What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you look forward to with the most anticipation?
“After having a chance to work on the “Ascender” project, I really think that there is a good chance that airships may undergo a renaissance in the near future. Under certain circumstances they could do some of the same jobs as rockets and satellites, less expensively and more responsively.”
What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you dread the most?
“A downside of science fiction becoming reality is that more powerful weapons of mass destruction are becoming more available to small groups and individuals. I don’t know what we have to do to deal with that possibility.”
Assuming you have the ability to determine (or at least influence) the future, what future development that you consider unlikely (or are uncertain about) would you most like to help bring about?
“Without a certain amount of ‘push’ from people who know something about their capabilities the Airship Renaissance I mentioned might not come about. I’d like to be part of that ‘push’.”
“Part of that ‘push’ is investigating the ways in which a technology can contribute to accomplishing our missions. Those contributions and the procedures to apply them, become the foundation of the ‘doctrine’ surrounding the new technology.”
“As you enter the Battlelab, there is an inscription on the wall that points out the importance of developing doctrine instead of just randomly grabbing at technologies.” (I’ve reproduced the quotation that the Major refers to, and a bit of the context below. – Auth.)
“National safety would be endangered by an Air Force whose doctrines and techniques are tied solely on the equipment and process of the moment. Present equipment is but a stop in progress, and . . .
[A]ny Air Force which does not keep its doctrine ahead of its equipment, and its vision far into the future, can only delude the nation into a false sense of security.”
– General H. H. “Hap” Arnold, 1945 
“A good example from our work with the ‘Ascender’ is the development of the concept of “Near Space.” When we were evaluating the unique capabilities that ‘Ascender’, ‘Dark Sky Station’ and similar technologies brought to the table, we established that there was a regime, lower and slower than the lowest sustainable orbit (about 100 kilometers and 17,000 mph – Auth.) but above controlled airspaces (about 60,000 feet, 18.288 km – Auth.) where a geographically stable, persistent platform carrying sensors, communications or other payloads might be desirable and that ultra-high altitude airships and derivative technologies would give us the ability to exploit that regime in unique ways and / or less expensively and more responsively than competing technologies.”
Why is it that in the year 2004 I still don’t have a flying car? When do you think I’ll be able to get one?
“A flying car is not yet economically viable. There are too many costs associated with the technology; development, establishing safety and operation regulations and controlling risks. If those costs can be overcome, then it might be possible if there is enough demand.”